Computing that makes us feel alive

In the past decade, there has been a renewed interest in computing paradigms research. It’s a continuation of work started many decades ago by computing pioneers. Much of the credit for the renewed interest, I would say, goes to Bret Victor’s illuminating work, which shed light on many challenges in the field.

Today we have become accustomed to notions of what it means to interact, use and program digital environments. Early in the development of computing paradigms, these ideas were still evolving. The pioneers weren’t constrained by predecessors dictating the ‘right’ way. The efforts of people in the last couple of years who have rediscovered the old questions and unresolved problems, have begun breaking free from established notions. I’ve been intrigued by the difficulty and the scale of the challenge for many years now.

There’s a quote by Alan Kay that has stuck with me: “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” This made me wonder: How can I change the way I look at things? In what contexts should I immerse myself to acquire valuable perspectives? One strategy I adopted was to identify people whose work I admire and then understand where they drew their genius from.

That search led me to Christopher Alexander. While an architect by trade, his ideas reached far beyond his field. His first book “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” was said to be required reading for researchers in computing throughout the 1960s, and later his “A Pattern Language” influenced programming design pattern movement. Yet, it’s his magnum opus, “The Nature of Order,” that I believe holds untapped potential for the tech industry. Not only for its potential in how it can reshape computer world but also for its profound insights into life.

I believe that his work is one of the most important things I’ve studied and the primary point of view I adopted.

The explorations presented in this digital garden are meditations on how to apply Alexander’s ideas to computing. By studying his work and connecting with a wider network of individuals deeply acquainted with it, I’ve been able to explore a potentially intriguing perspective on the future of computing that has captivated me for years.

Those already familiar with Alexander’s work might find ideas on this website easier to relate to. For the most part I will assume that you have read his work.

If you wish to begin to learn about it, I suggest you start with the talk he gave in 1996 to an audience of computer scientists and engineers at the conference OOPSLA (or read the transcript). It will give you a glimpse of a direction from which I’m approaching the explorations.

Once you want to become more serious about it, I suggest you continue with Notes on the Synthesis of Form, The Timeless Way of Building, and The Nature of Order series. While it will be a deep dive, it will most likely profoundly change your worldview.

Alexander’s work serves not only as an inspiration but, more importantly, as a benchmark with an exceptionally high standard to judge the quality of explorations. This is closely related to the question of how to design computing that makes us feel alive.

For Alexander, feeling alive is tied to being in spaces or environments that have an inherent quality of life. Spaces that resonate with humans, that are harmonious and evoke a sense of well-being, make the occupants feel more alive. The feeling of aliveness is the core benchmark with which Alexander measured the quality of human made artifacts.

This digital garden is in its entirety dedicated to answering the question of how to design spaces with such quality in the context of digital environments.

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The website is structured as a digital garden. Here are all the pages, along with their links, visualized as a graph.

Personification of computer processes Why "Latent Centers"? Computing that makes us feel alive